What is the tea party? A primer
Tuesday night's Republican primaries reaffirmed the strength of the "tea party" movement. But what is the tea party? It's harder to define than it sounds.
The movement began in February of 2009 as a reaction against the bailout of Wall Street banks and President Obama's stimulus package. Many say CNBC's Rick Santelli helped spark the organized protests with a televised rant against against government spending, but conservative activists had already been organizing around the "tea party" idea online. Supporters say the first nationwide Tea Party protest took place on February 27, 2009, with small, coordinated events occurring in more than 40 cities. August. They were inspired by the Boston Tea Party, but many participants also used the word TEA as an acronym standing for "Taxed Enough Already."
The protests continued through the year. On April 15, 2009 (the income tax filing deadline), there were more than 750 protests across the country. Fox News personalities promoted the events in advance and then covered them extensively. FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group run by lobbyist and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, helped fund the protests. The Web site Tea Party Patriots encouraged supporters to be aggressive at Democrats' town hall meetings that summer.
Also that summer, the bus tour Tea Party Express (TPE) was launched, backed by longtime Republican operatives. The tour's sponsors were the Our Country Deserves Better PAC (formed in 2008 to oppose Obama), and Americans for Prosperity (launched by oil and manufacturing billionaire David Koch). Americans for Prosperity also provided tea party activists with lists of elected officials to target and helped them with strategy, online coordination and training.
There was some friction between TPE and Tea Party Patriots; the latter did not want to be considered a Republican-backed group. "As an organization, we do our best to be completely nonpartisan," said Mark Meckler, a national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. "That's one of things that's allowed us to survive when we were called Republican tools. Tea Party Patriots are very dissatisfied with the Republican Party -- we have nothing against Our Country Deserves Better PAC, but they raise money for Republicans." However, Rolling Stone linked Tea Party Patriots to Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, which they also tied back to Republican campaigns against health-care reform under President Clinton.
On September 12, 2009, tea party groups from around the country converged on Washington for a massive protest. While counts were controversial, ABC News estimated the crowd size at 60,000 to 70,000. Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck had instigated the idea of a 9/12 rally back in March, with the launch of "the 912 Project." Tea Party Patriots was a co-sponsor.
A defining moment for the tea party was the special election in New York's 23rd congressional district on November 3, 2009. Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, aided by TPE and by Sarah Palin, knocked moderate Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava out of the race in October. (Hoffman went on to lose to Democrat Bill Owens, who got Scozzafava's endorsement.)
Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that has been supporting conservative candidates for the past decade, joined with the tea party to back Hoffman. They also endorsed hard-line conservative Sharron Angle in Nevada, helping her win the Republican Senate primary. Group members told The Post their goal was to capitalize on the movement, although their roots are decidedly elite.
In January, tea party activists helped Republican Scott Brown win a special election for the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in traditionally blue Massachusetts. Tea Party Express spent about $350,000 in Massachusetts to help Brown win. (He has since angered some tea party activists by supporting President Obama's financial reform.)
On February 4, 2010, 600 tea party activists gathered in Nashville for the first Tea Party Convention, organized by the Web site Tea Party Nation. Palin was the keynote speaker.
Republican leaders began trying to use the party to rally opposition to health-care legislation and generate support for Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) in particular has embraced the tea party. But some Republicans remain wary, worried that tea party candidates could prove hard to manage if they are elected.
In March of 2010, conservative lawmakers held a rally on the Capitol against the health-care bill. Tea party protesters were accused of spitting on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and using racist and homophobic slurs.
Partly in response to the negative coverage, tea party groups formed a federation in April 2010 to better organize and coordinate publicity. "It's an evolution," tea party activist Mark Skoda told the L.A. Times. "Not an organization. We're not co-opting a movement. We're not creating a new leadership structure."
In advance of another round of April 15 protests, some tea party organizers wrote a new "Contract from America," culled from online submissions with the help of Dick Armey.
Palin and the Tea Party Express had another major victory in August of 2010, when Joe Miller beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski to secure the Republican Senate nomination in Alaska.
The group put $600,000 into "Liberal Lisa" radio and television ads, which helped define Miller's opponent. And while Palin did not campaign for Miller, she and former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman recorded effective 11th-hour robocalls for him.
Delaware's primary on Tuesday split tea party groups, with some urging supporters to think about electability as well as conservative ideology. FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said his organization decided to stay out of that primary because "we're not convinced that Christine O'Donnell can win." "We're not sure what she stands for," said David Keating, executive director of Club for Growth. And in New Hampshire, Palin endorsed former attorney general Kelly Ayotte, who on Tuesday beat out a tea party conservative to claim the GOP nomination in the Senate race.
A TPE spokesperson told Salon an e-mail list of more than 400,000 reliable conservative donors has helped them raise over $5 million this cycle.
But while the movement has had a number of high-profile wins, it also has lost plenty of races. Slate's David Weigel has a tally here, with an update from Tuesday's primaries here. And we have a map of the candidates Palin has endorsed here.
Weigel, who has been covering the tea party movement since its inception, wrote a "five myths" piece about the movement in August.
| September 15, 2010; 2:02 PM ET
Categories: 2010 Election, 44 The Obama Presidency
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